In 1985, William Styron, author of Sophie’s Choice, flew to Paris to receive France’s prestigious Prix Mondial Cino Del Duca. The night before the glittering presentation, Styron, recently dry after years of alcohol abuse, soothed by Halcion, experienced a catastrophic breakdown. Churchill, after Samuel Johnson, had named such trauma “the black dog” of depression. The beast barked and leapt on Styron’s back.
As chillingly illustrated by the doomed poet Keith Douglas in his WWII Bête noire fragments, black dog does not bargain. An avalanche of self-loathing inundated Styron; the world-famous writer was turned instantly upside down; in John Milton’s description of hell from Paradise Lost, “Darkness visible”; in Styron’s, “a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self — to the mediating intellect — as to verge close to being beyond description.” This the night before he was due to enjoy the apogée of French esteem, an award ceremony followed by a grandiose lunch; menus were set, toasts were compulsory, speeches practised. As festive confirmation of the influence of Styron’s work, his time in Paris summoned, ironically, “a major ordeal”.
Styron’s subsequent Darkness Visible is a short, sharp memoir of a public persona’s greatest fears manifesting publicly: an instant loss of vitality, a temporal disconnect, an abdication of personality triggered by a mystery trauma of severe magnitude. Most disturbing is to read of the author overwhelmed by the beast that denies outright the possibility of normative action. Disturbing yet vital, for at last I had found a writer who spoke to me on terms that helped make sense of my own historic afflictions.
One morning in May, I stepped into the shower a balanced man. Ten minutes later, I was on my knees, cracked and weeping on a rubber mat. I cannot account for this on a second-by-second basis, the scene remains too fuzzy, beyond description. There was simply a short-circuiting of neurons; a mass walk-out by the call centre staff. Only after hours – perhaps – did reality become tangible. For some time, I’ve known how empowering it can be to put the tempest into words. I spent the following day in an intense trance, documenting my own mystery anguish. I wanted the dog’s poison out. The call invited a response. The bark sanctioned the byte.
To write about mental health is not to experience its truculence. There is logic in the editing process, if not in the incipient avalanche of words. Ostensibly, I’m no Styron or Douglas, yet my memoir, Extravagant Stranger, has yielded ‘Letter to my son, re. Black Dog’, a prose poem – in matters of autobiography I work best when de-structuring formalities – that stands to forewarn my boy, should he ever … it is almost unthinkable … Here, the act of writing is both life affirming and death defying. I can summon focus and craft enough to placate the beast with a biscuit. With this urge not to bow down, there arises an act of major defiance.
The process by which I rack up the bytes is necessarily rational. No-one can create when pole-axed. I stave off the dog as I write about the dog. As Styron and Douglas well knew, resistance comes with calling it out, with warding off bleak vicissitudes. The present tense is the enemy of mood disorder. The byte of now becomes a solution to the bark of night.
ABOUT DANIEL ROY CONNELLY
A former British diplomat, DANIEL ROY CONNELLY is a theatre director, actor and professor of creative writing, English and theatre at John Cabot University and the American University of Rome. He has acted in and directed theatre in America, the UK, Italy and China, where his 2009 production of David Henry Hwang’s M Butterfly was forced to close by the Chinese secret police.
His writing is widely published in print and online. He was the winner of the 2014 Fermoy International Poetry Festival Prize, a finalist in the 2015 Aesthetica Magazine Creative Writing Prize and winner of the 2015 Cuirt New Writing Prize for poetry. Recent work has appeared in The North, The Transnational (in German), Ink, Sweat and Tears, The Moth, Acumen and Critical Survey. He is the author of Extravagant Stranger: A Memoir published by Little Island Press (2017).